Shaun Tan

Lothian (2006)


Reviewed by Alisa Krasnostein (this review was first published in April 2007)

For me, by far the most outstanding work published in Australia last year was Shaun Tan’s The Arrival. The book itself, physically, is a beautiful work of art. The hard cover is designed to look like a beat up, battered old book – maybe a loved storybook or family photo album. It also reminds me of an old suitcase.

The story, too, is a beautifully crafted work of art. It tells the story of the immigrant – of a man who leaves his wife and child to escape the monster terrorising their city to begin a life for them anew in some other, freer city. Along the way, we share his struggles as he is confronted by the alienness of this new world as he misses his family as well as the stories of other immigrants who have fled their own oppressors to start a new life in this city.

What is unique about this work is that Tan unveils this man’s story not by telling with words but by showing with pictures. In fact, there are no words at all in this book. Each page illustrates the story through series upon series of pictures. The inside cover, too, is filled with drawings of faces, perhaps passport or ID photos, of men and women, young and old, from all sorts of backgrounds. From this we can see that Tan’s story is universal. It crosses time and geographical boundaries.

What I love about this book is that by using only pictures to tell the story, Tan leaves the narration open to interpretation by the reader which must, therefore, be slightly different each time it is read. Each reader comes to The Arrival with their own personal backstory which will affect how the various pictures will resonate with them. I myself saw part of my own family story told within the book’s pages and would love to compare my reading of the “text” with others who have a different family history.

To me, the sepia tones and the various objects within the pictures – the battered suitcase and the processing centre which our protagonist arrives at after travelling to the city by sea – very much speak of arriving at Ellis Island in the 1930s and 1940s. However, the various alien or speculative elements in the pictures add uncertainty to them such that others must surely set their own navigational elements for personal resonation through the narrative. To me, this book tells the story of the old world meeting the new. It tells of how hard it is to leave all that is familiar to struggle to survive in a completely alien culture. It tells of the pursuit for a better life for oneself and one’s family. It tells of the importance of acceptance both for newcomers and towards newcomers. And it shows how similar all our stories really are, in the end.

This is such an exquisitely produced book with such a timely message. It is both moving and heartfelt. The Arrival comes highly recommended by this reader whose own copy sits on her coffee table for all visitors to experience on their own arrival.